During his speech at Columbia University almost one year ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad professed, “[w]e have no homosexuals in Iran.” Now, a film entitled “A Jihad for Love” demonstrates why it is difficult to locate gays in the Muslim world.
Filmed over a period of five and a half years, filmmaker-director Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim, conducted interviews with other gays and lesbians in twelve countries and nine different languages. The film premiered in Toronto in 2007 and was only recently released in the United States. It was banned at the Singapore International Film Festival due to the “sensitive nature” of discussing the compatibility of Islam and homosexuality.
The film attempts to reclaim the concept of jihad to mean “inner struggle,” rather than the often-used concept of “holy war.” Yet, one could not help but notice that the reaction to homosexuals by the surrounding Muslim community was overtly hostile, violent and oppressive. The inner struggle seemed to be directly brought on by the inner-outer conflict of how to reconcile one’s own sexual proclivities with the inevitable disapproval, chastisement, and violent penalties that would be imposed by Islamic fundamentalist governments, the Muslim religious community, and sometimes even family members.
For example, Muhsin, a gay imam in Johannesburg, South Africa, decided to “come out” by making the rounds with radio appearances. His goal was to speak out in an attempt to reach other gay Muslims and prevent them from either committing suicide or leaving Islam. But the audience would have none of it. Though homosexuality is not illegal in South Africa, callers from the conservative Muslim community believe it should be. “He should be thrown off a mountain or burned.” “They should cut off his arse.” “They should definitely bring back the death penalty for this guy…He’s bringing down the name of Islam.”
These were just some of the comments called in by English speaking citizens. Muhsin’s children, who see him less often since his divorce, laughed and giggled when he asked them what they thought should happen to him because he’s gay. “[Y]ou should be stoned!” shouted his daughter. “No, he should be thrown off a mountain,” her brother argued. All this, despite the fact that they clearly loved him.
“Seriously,” Muhsin asked, “if someone tried to hurt you, I would put my life on the line because I love you (paraphrasing)….You wouldn’t do the same for me?.... If someone wanted to kill me, what would you do?” The children sobered up and the daughter replied, “I would pray that my Dad won’t feel, and that he would die with the first stone.” Muhsin continued, “I know the mentality of the Muslim community, and I was prepared to die.”
Muhsin believes that the answer to reconciling homosexuality with Islam does not lie in the Koran, but in ijtihad-- the independent interpretation of Islamic laws, used by legal scholars. Unfortunately, most scholars believe that “the gates of itjihad closed in the tenth century.” Therefore, Islamic rulings have generally not been updated since that time. Muhsin explained that in their religious education, most Muslims are taught to fear Allah more than they are taught about God’s love. He believes this needs to be changed.
In Iran, the government discovered that Amir was a homosexual. There, homosexuality is a crime, often punishable by death. The movie did not reveal that most homosexuals in Iran are hung in the public square, sometimes as young as age sixteen. Instead, it showed photographs of Amir’s back, after he received one hundred bloody lashes. It is likely that he was allowed to live because his father was a martyr. Eventually, Amir and three of his friends escaped to Turkey, which does not recognize Iranian refugees. They applied to the UN Commissioner for Central Refugees for refugee status. Their requests were granted and they relocated to Canada. Had their applications been denied, they would have been returned to Iran.
Arsham was among Amir’s friends who applied for refugee status. He had founded “The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization” or “PGLO” for short, an organization not mentioned in the film. Two of Amir’s friends as well as other interviewees were filmed with blotted out faces due to fear of repercussions to themselves or their families.
Some of the interviewees visited imams or Islamic scholars to find out whether their homosexuality was compatible with their faith. All the scholars emphatically declared that it was not. One imam explained that homosexuals are not entitled to Muslim burials. He asserted that according to all Islamic scholars, the sin of homosexuality is punishable by death.
The only differing views pertain to how one should be killed. In India, punishment for the crime of homosexuality is not enforced. There, one scholar encouraged Qasim, who came seeking answers, to pray to Allah for forgiveness. When Qasim inquired what would happen if he continued his homosexual activity after saying his prayers, the scholar demanded that Qasim see a psychologist to cure his problem.
Almost all of the gays and lesbians in the film had prayed for Allah to remove their homosexuality. For most, this prayer went unanswered. Many came to terms with their sexuality but still remained believers in Islam. Some are trying to reform their religion. Some merely escaped to freer countries. Others stayed behind drenched in guilt and shame.
Maryam and her girlfriend researched the status of lesbianism within Islam. They discovered that it is forbidden by all scholars, but is only punishable by scolding because it doesn’t involve penetration. Maryam sighed, wishing the punishment were greater -- perhaps a severe lashing, in order to relieve her of her guilt. Maryam resides in Morrocco, a more liberal Muslim country, but her girlfriend lives in Egypt where homosexuality, including lesbianism, is punished by the government. They commute to see each other in secrecy, both desiring to live together as a couple, but simultaneously fearing the consequences. Maryam fails to understand why she cannot live with both her girlfriend and Allah at the same time. Nevertheless, she is happy to cover herself in the Islamic hijab because it makes her feel less attractive to men and she finds that freeing.
Others came forward in the film as well. One lesbian had been the victim of female genital mutilation as a child, which closed her genitals up until she was age twenty-five. Another, a cross-dresser, went on the annual religious hajj to Mecca. When he returned, he “felt funny” about his sexual behavior knowing he still attended a mosque that forbids it. He discontinued his cross-dressing and his homosexual activities.
Across the globe, homosexuality is taboo in many religions and cultures. However, the prohibition is strongest within the Islamic culture. Not only must gay and lesbian Muslims endure the name-calling that occurs across the board, but if they live in Islamic theocracies, their conduct constitutes a crime punishable by a range of violent acts from bloody lashings, to stoning, beheading or hanging. Where the state does not impose such penalties, often the Muslim community opines that it should, and sometimes even takes matters into its own hands.
“A Jihad for Love” covers the reactions to homosexuality throughout an array of Muslim countries, customs and communities. All the interviewees came forward under the threat of death. The film would have been more effective had it provided a more complete picture of the extent of violent penalties for the crime of homosexuality. Nevertheless, it is the only known full length documentary covering the subject of homosexuality and Islam. The West, and those on the left in particular, need to be confronted with the fact that radical Islamic ideologies are in direct conflict with all the values they claim to hold dear.
Parvez Sharma should be commended for coming out of the closet -- for revealing the truth regarding how much of the Muslim world denies homosexuals their basic human rights and dignity.